Film Diary: September

September brought me to 300 movies logged in Letterboxd. I need to watch just over 20 each month now to make my goal, so it’s time to take my challenge semi-seriously again.

Lots of re-watches last month, and two of them I watched twice in the period! “The Visitor” and “Godzilla” were new acquisitions that I watched again during the monthly marathon with friends. (I brought “The Visitor” and Tim brought “Godzilla”.) Some re-watches were for fun (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, “Destroy All Monsters”), some to enjoy for the first time in HD (“All That Jazz”), and one by total mistake (“House at the End of the Street”, which I had apparently erased all memory of having seen).

The biggest surprise for me was “Aguirre: The Wrath of God”. A German film by Werner Herzog, it is set and filmed entirely in the Amazon. Just imagine wearing conquistador armor for a lengthy and arduous jungle shoot. No wonder everyone wanted to kill Klaus Kinski by the end of it.

The result is magnificent, though. The visuals are gorgeous, with the camera taking in all of the lush scenery. The story of renegade explorers seeking glory and riches is solid, and the sense of both the decay of morale and the folly of the endeavor grows with every scene. Most critically, Kinski is at his egomaniacal best as the deluded ringleader of the rebellion. It is a joy to watch him deny reality as it sinks in for those around him.

Another treat was Alejendro Jodorowski’s fictional auto-biography “The Dance of Reality”. Although starting with a basis in truth, the film places more weight on emotional and symbolic truth. Because his mother had wanted to be an opera singer, he casts an opera singer to portray her, delivering all of her dialog in operatic style. By the time his father (played by his own son!) runs off to become an assassin, you suspect that perhaps the film has veered wildly from historical accuracy. Indeed, Jodorowski admits in an interview that he wanted to give his father a chance for a spiritual awakening that he never had in life.

It’s a beautiful film, as confounding and captivating as his best. It made me wonder what adventures my own abusive father could have had to become a happy and fulfilled person, who no longer had to punish those around him for his inner turmoil. I’m betting it wouldn’t involve grooming the President’s horse, but I can’t be certain.

Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)
All That Jazz (1979)
Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys (2014)
Boy Wonder (2010)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
City Lights (1931)
The Dance of Reality (2013)
Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Frankenstein’s Army (2013)
Godzilla (2014)
Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla (2002)
Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)
The Graves (2010)
High Lane (2009)
House at the End of the Street (2012)
Joe Versus the Volcano (1980)
Jumanji (1995)
RED (2010)
The Return of the Prodigal Son (1967)
The Runaways (2010)
SAGA: Curse of the Shadow (2013)
Scanners (1981)
Schuhpalast Pinkus (1916)
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Stage Fright (2014)
To Be or Not To Be (1942)
The Visitor (1979)
The Warriors (1979)
The Wolverine (2013)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)


Fast Doofs

The local news tonight reported that the police are looking for a pair of thieves who broke into three fast food joints on Christmas. I expressly don’t say they robbed the restaurants, as only the second one actually had a little money in it. There’s footage of the would-be burglars, and it seems likely that they’ll be picked up soon.

Honestly I’m most amazed that they thought there’d be any money, let alone enough to make it worth the risk.

My Impression of the Planning Stage of the Crime Spree

Doof #1: “Hey! Mickey D’s will be closed on Christmas! Like, nobody will be there! Now’s our chance!”

Doof #2: “Wouldn’t they have taken most of the money to the bank after closing the night before?”

Doof #1: “Listen to me! No one will be there! It’ll be a cinch!”

Doof #2: “Do you think they have video surveillance?”

Doof #1: “Everyone will be home! It’s like they’re inviting us in!”

Doof #2: “I dunno…”

Doof #1: “Eggnog shaaaaaakes!”

Doof #2: “Hell yeah! I’ll drive!”

The Narrative Beneath the Trial Coverage

Jodi Arias has been convicted of 1st degree murder, and America congratulates itself for knowing that she was guilty all along. But why does anyone not involved with the case care so much?

The easy answer is to blame it on the news media, which I do, but that is nothing either new or informative. The question is why the media wants us to care. It’s not merely to fill airtime; there are “sensational” events happening often enough that we should answer why this trial in particular attracted attention.

She’s a reasonably attractive defendant, which certainly didn’t make news agencies avoid the case. She also killed a man, which under our society’s still-patriarchal view of women as delicate servants brings a bit of attention in itself. Still, she didn’t sleep with a student or kill children, which are the usual ways young white women on trial come to national attention.

Her defense at trial was that she killed him in self-defense.

Ah. Aaaaaah! Here we get into something the media can use. Experts can talk every single day of the trial about whether a self-defense claim is ever valid and, more importantly, if killing an abuser is even self-defense.

The interest isn’t in what Jodi Arias did, or even why, but in whether women are allowed to defend themselves. Can abused women take advantage of opportunities to prevent further abuse?

And the real draw for the media here is that there was zero (reported) evidence to support Arias’ claims. Only her word and that of experts were available to verify her claims of abuse. So all of the theoretical arguments by the media’s talking heads kept circling back to the real narrative of the coverage — she’s lying about being abused.

Through her case, we can all reinforce the script that women lie. A woman claims to have been abused? Lying. Raped? Totally lying. One well-publicized instance of a woman you just knew all along was lying will now be the filter through which we judge all claims by women.

Do I think that the promotion of this case was a calculated decision to help erode public opinion about abuse? No. Rather, it was a calculated decision to give us a story that feeds into our sense of outrage — a sense that is still informed by outdated notions such as “women lie”, “reports of abuse are false”, and “I could tell by looking at her”.

Writing this the day after the verdict, the Jodi Arias case is already being buried. Now we’re being feverishly told about how three women held captive should have escaped years earlier and how the man who helped them finally is horrible and stupid.


The Corner Guitar Store

One selling point for my current job was that it was close to Herb David’s Guitar Studio. In business since 1962, the shop sold and repaired instruments and hosted independent instructors. Having just inherited a mandolin from Wendi’s family, I wanted to learn how to play it.

Once a week for the first year of my employment, I climbed up to the second floor of the shop and learned how to make progressively less unpleasant noise. I bought my Mid-Missouri M-0 mandolin there, and for one of my birthdays Wendi ordered a Makala MK-P ukulele from them and had a pickup installed in it.

On the corner of Was and Is No More.

On the corner of Was and Is No More.

Over the years I’ve picked up songbooks, slides, tuners, a bunch of ukes, strings, and my Epiphone VeeWee from Herb Davids. They repaired my grandmother’s Gibson Songbird, and I’d been planning to see what they could do for my vintage banjo.

From my use of the past tense, you’ve probably ascertained that Herb David’s Guitar Studio is no more. In a few more days, you’ll be right.

Herb David is retiring, and the doors will close for good on March 30. I’m happy for him. His store has been open for 51 years, and that’s an accomplishment well worth noting. Still, downtown Ann Arbor will lose a little more of its personality next week.

Strum on, Herb! We miss you already.

Reporting Gone Wrong

Trigger Warning: This essay is about rape and rape culture.

When I planned this essay, it was inspired by an unfortunate phrase that I caught in a true crime show on ID. An officer described the rape and murder of a woman as a “rape gone wrong”. Clearly, he was just recycling the phrase “burglary gone wrong”, which is used to indicate that someone was unexpectedly home or awake. I don’t think the officer meant to imply that the presence of the rape victim was unexpected, but it’s that kind of casual language that supports rape culture. The implication is that there’s a right way for a rape to go, which is a damn creepy way of thinking.

That’s what I had planned to write about. Then the verdict came in from the Steubenville, OH rape trial, and news agencies fell over themselves to mourn the “promising futures” of the convicted rapists.

Personally, I believe the only their futures promised was more rape, but I’m a cynic.

The 24-hour news cycle promotes a lot of lazy reporting. Something needs to fill the time, so the latest big event is worked over until every last cliché has been wrung from it and those clichés have in turn been ground into nothingness.

Communities are ‘quiet’, ‘close’, and ‘peaceful’ up until they’re ‘shocked’ and ‘saddened’ by ‘sudden violence’. Everything in a trial is either ’emotional’ or ‘not betraying any emotion’. These are some of the building blocks reporters use when they have nothing to say.

In a rape trial, especially of a minor, the victim is protected, so all the press has to work with is the defendant. So, when pressed for material, they pull out the usual time-filling nonsense and wind up reporting on the wasted potential of rapists. There is no excuse for it; it’s sheer laziness.

It’s reporting gone wrong.

Gah! Spider Puppets!

You may remember that spiders are my natural predator. You may also recall that above all else I fear signs of intelligence in the leggy bastards. News of communities of spiders cooperating when food was plentiful convinced me that the end was near.

Well, according to this article on Wired, we now have evidence of spiders that put on puppet shows! They make spider puppets out of bits of debris and wiggle them. Why? It may be to mislead predatory birds, but they won’t know unless someone sits and watches enough spider puppet shows to prove out the theory.

Spider. Puppet. Shows.

I can’t even.

Choose the Dream In Which You Live

I sat in the waiting room of the dentists’ office, my eyes closed against the commotion from the other patients. Jolly holiday music wafted over me from speakers I never bothered to find. My eyes opened in response to the sound of the office door. Before me I could see CNN on the TV. The tech called a different patient. I read the closed caption on CNN’s coverage of a Newtown fireman talking about receiving 26 wreaths at the station house. Somewhere Bing Crosby dreamed of a White Christmas.

It was a little after 3:00 PM on Monday, December 17. I realized that three worlds mixed uncomfortably around me.

The first world came in over the speakers. It was a happy world, where people went on sleigh rides and gave each other presents. There was snow and romance, and the biggest troubles could be handled by taking them to Santa Claus.

The second world was the silent horror of the television. Unrelenting fear and misery, projecting over us — always questioning our safety.

In between lay the third world. This was where we sat. It wasn’t eternally cheery. It wasn’t constant anguish. It had a bit of each, but only rarely. Mostly it was a lot of anticipation of one or the other. We could focus on the good fantasy or the bad fantasy and live to see them realized.

They never would be real, though. Not really. You could live that way and be always disappointed or distraught, but they still wouldn’t be real. Better, you can live for the moments in between. Learn to enjoy every sandwich. It’s easier to bear the bad times, if you don’t count only the very best times as good.

Then the door opened for me, and I went back to get a filling in a wisdom tooth.

General Blight

If the car dealership near our house was open when we moved in, then it was already shutting down. For most of the ten years or so that we’ve lived in our quiet village, the car lot has stood empty. The pavement had cracked in recent years, and weeds took full advantage of the opportunity to form a crazed, green web through the lot.

Now I’m imagining a gigantic spider that weaves weed webs in a parking lot right near my house. Good going, me.

Anyway, there was this large untended commercial lot right next door. Okay, that was the auto part factory. But that’s now a recycling plant of some sort. I don’t really know, which is actually very hard to explain to drivers that show up during off hours. They always seem to think that we have the factory over for dinner or have it watch our cats when we’re out.

“You don’t have a number?” a driver will ask.

“No. They didn’t even tell me they were going. Pisses me off, because I wanted to take my wife out and was counting on them to feed the cats.”

…The car lot is (was) next door to the factory, is what I meant to say. To recap: our house, the factory, the car lot. Also a car wash that sort of borders all of these properties, but that’s irrelevant.

The point is that about a month ago the dealership office was torn down. Now the parking lot has been dug up, and there seems to be foundation work being done.

I know that something’s happening.

We were curious what could be going in. It’s kind of tricky to start a new business around here. It’s a pretty sheltered community, despite being only a 15 minute drive from larger towns and about half an hour from parts of Ann Arbor. The arrangement of roads makes it so that there’s not a lot of traffic, and what there is mostly consists of trucks and other long-distance travellers. If you’re planning on taking advantage of the proximity to the larger communities, you should just put your startup money on lottery tickets — you’ll probably lose less.

We finally took a look at the sign posted on the construction site. It turns out that the store’s going to be a Dollar General. Those things are like blight fungus, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. I just don’t see how it fits into a small village economy. It’ll probably take some snack and sundries business from the grocery and hardware stores, but that’s about it. Is there that much demand here for cheap can openers and crummy pens?

We’ll see. I just hope the factory leaves a number at the Dollar General when they’re away.

Talking Turkey

It’s the week of Thanksgiving, and while we gorge ourselves on turkey and sanitized history we are encouraged to give pause to think about what we have for which we are thankful. I do that frequently, so instead I’ll take the day’s myth as fact and examine what it says about the America in which we wish we lived.

The story goes that a friendly tribe of natives taught the settlers at Plymouth how to grow crops in the region. Out of gratitude the settlers then invited the natives to a feast where they shared their bounty. As far as the myth is concerned all lived happily ever after in harmony, and that’s as it should be. Myths are to enlighten and inspire us, not to ruin everything with facts.

So let’s rephrase these events and take a fresh look at them.

Start with a group of people, we’ll call them Americans, who have been in an area (America) long enough to have established themselves and their culture. These Americans have a good idea of how things work there, and they live in relative comfort.

Enter another group of people. These people are from elsewhere and for certain reasons have decided to seek a new start in America. Because they have emigrated from their homeland, we shall call them immigrants.

You see where I’m going with this, yes?

Now these immigrants arrive in America, and they don’t have the necessary skills to be immediately successful there. Seeing that these immigrants need some help, the Americans go out of their way to give them the assistance needed to learn how to survive in America. They expect nothing in return. They just act on their compassion.

The immigrants incorporate what they need from the Americans. They maintain their separate culture, but they are no longer alone. They give back to the Americans, and a bridge is formed between two groups of people. America is the same, but Americans have changed. The community has grown.

It’s a beautiful myth, and I’m thankful that I live in a country where it might one day become reality. Until then, I’ll reflect on this dream and continue to believe.

Zombies, Cannibals, and the Meme Cycle

On May 26th, Rudy Eugene ate the face off Ronald Poppo. He reportedly did not respond to police intervention even when shot. The internet community immediately pointed to this as proof of a zombie attack, and shortly thereafter began berating itself for the joke. Isolated cases involving cannibalism kept this cycle of joke and lash-back shambling along for the next few weeks.

As a known fan of zombie movies (I once drunkenly extolled the virtues of a three-way fight between a shark, zombie, and half-naked diver to a room full of uninterested friends) it is inevitable that I will receive multiple forwards of any and all zombie related news. I thank even the umpteenth messenger, as I’m pleased that people think of me enough to relate information that may actually interest me.

This incident caught my attention and held on. I absorbed the jokes and the censure, the repetition and recrimination, and I pondered why this was such a familiar pattern that seemed so unusual. At length I worked out some explanations that make sense to me.

To start with, the assailant and victim were both naked. It’s not prurience that makes this important, although some of the comments made tittering note of it. Clothing makes us human. It represents our involvement in society and to some extent our status. An unclothed attacker strikes us an inhuman, bestial, and absent of reason.

Both men were identified as homeless, putting them on the fringe of society to begin with. Their lack of clothing symbolically confirms that they exist outside of civilization. Through the lens of status, they are not individuals but feral creatures.

The nature of the attack reinforces this theme. Beyond the question of why anyone would commit such an act, the victim was literally defaced. His identity was removed — no, consumed — by a man who’d lost his humanity.

Faceless Man

Face of the Unknown

Much is made of the attacker’s reported lack of response to bullets; it often serves as the foundation of the zombie jokes. It’s little more than a convenient hook, I think. We’re culturally used to hearing about drugs making people violent and insensate. I remember Toma coming to my high school to warn us with the usual sensational examples of drug-induced dementia: raging PCP super-junkies and bad trips that end in cooking babies.

And that’s when I realized that the whole incident sounds like an urban legend. “Did you hear the one about the guy who got high on bath salts and ate another guy’s face?” Except that urban legends have morals; they teach us a lesson about the dangers of being incautious or imprudent. Here we have the horrific aftermath without the lesson.

That’s the key, I think. We’re left wondering how this happened. What went wrong? How can we keep it from happening to us? So there’s fear behind the humor — an attempt to minimize the shock and frame it in a context we can understand and dismiss.

Above all we don’t want to know that we’re just animals, cloaking ourselves in the trappings of civilization. We certainly don’t want to realize that it takes an unimaginable act of mutilation for us to notice the homeless.